October 24, 2011

21st Century Cruise Line Careers


The boom in “Boat Rides”: where did it start?


he cruise industry has been one of the fastest growing businesses in global travel for the last few decades. The industry was revolutionized in the 1970s when Ted Arison bought the Transatlantic ship, The Empress of Canada, painted her bright “uncruise-like” colors,  renamed her the TSS Mardi Gras and sold party cruises to a new middle class market for a company called Carnival Cruise Lines. Along with the brilliant marketing mind of Bob Dickenson Carnival Cruise lines changed the cruise product from offering only sedate upper class Transatlantic

Carnival Cruise Lines – © Len Rapoport

crossings and around the world cruises for the wealthy, to offering the “Fun Ships”. The growth was explosive. To compete during the 1980s many other cruise lines started offering similar type cruises, shorter, more entertainment, more reasonable prices; all which attracted new cruise customers to the industry and new types of onboard jobs. The 1990s saw a great deal of consolidation with Carnival Corporation purchasing many traditional lines (today: 11 brands, 100 ships) and the race was on (and still is) to build the largest ship. From an average of 900 passengers, ships have been, and are still being built for 3’000 to 4’000 passengers (which need more than 2’000 crew). This completely changes the cruise product for the passengers as well as for the employees and new types of very diverse and interesting positions open up.

Not all cruise ships are Mega Floating Cities

Navigator of the Seas – © Len Rapoport

However, there is still some variation on the ship sizes left to offer and fortunately, cruise visionaries such as Warren Titus of Royal Viking Line created the yacht-like Seabourn Cruise ships in the 1980s (now under the Carnival brand umbrella), followed by a similar, but independent product called Silversea Cruises. Windstar computerized sailing yachts were then developed carrying 150-300 passengers. Borderline mega cruise ships are also becoming popular like Celebrity Cruises, part of RCCL (Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines) which is attracting many new and repeat passengers, especially in Europe where cruising demand has been historically weak. RCCL reports an increase in European passengers of 60% over the last 4 years.

Happy Crews, Happy Passengers

The cruise product over the decades has held the highest rates of customer satisfaction in the travel industry with an exceptional amount of repeat and loyal business. Advantages to the cruise product are no packing and unpacking, transferring from airport to airport, etc. Furthermore, almost everything you can imagine in the way of entertainment and cuisine is included in the price of the cruise ticket. Passenger demographics are changing and there is now a vast diversity of offers to satisfy many types of customers. The cruise industry is also highly self-regulated compared to the global travel industry, especially those cruise lines belonging to non-profit CLIA (Cruise Line Industry International) which provide excellent value, security, sustainable practices, exceptional entertainment and consistency to their passengers.

The Cruise Industry Today

Celebrity OMM Benedict Fornaro

A major contributor to tourism economies in many destinations and to the travel business in general, cruising, with its unique hospitality specificities, is a sector with which hospitality students should be familiar. Several of my students have gone on to careers in the cruise industry and have been there for some years. One in particular, Benedict Fornaro, from land-locked Switzerland, a 2010 graduate from L’ECOLE HOTELIERE DE LAUSANNE (EHL) has already been promoted to OMM (Onboard Marketing Manager) for Celebrity Cruises. This is a new type of job position that was created due to a highly competitive situation in the cruise industry (as in all the travel sectors), in particular during the last couple years when cruise ticket prices were reduced and onboard revenue was greatly needed by the cruise lines to supplement these loses. On Celebrity, for example, 72.7% of the revenue comes from cruise tickets and 27.3% comes from onboard revenue facilities such as the bar, casino, special services, excursions, etc. Benedict Fornaro, who is very satisfied working for Celebrity Cruises, has agreed to share his experiences with future hospitality cruise career seekers and reveals what it is like to work onboard a cruise line as an OMM in the 21st century.

Benedict Fornaro’s career path and current onboard position: An Interview

Celebrity Cruises, a Premium category cruise line, promises “passionate dedication to providing guests with a cruise experience that exceeds expectations” and is known for their frequent innovation, outstanding interior design, culinary skills and sophisticated onboard programming. The crew ratio is 1 crew for every 2 passengers. The cruise line, based in Miami with vessels registered in Malta, offers 4 ships with a passenger capacity of about 2’000 and 5 ships with 2’800 to 3’000 passengers. In addition, it is the only major cruise line to offer a ship, The Celebrtiy Xpedition (96 berths) to the Galapagos Islands.

Benedict, why did you go immediately to work for the cruise lines after graduation?

I knew that at this point I could do whatever I felt like and go where ever I wanted to. As we’ve touched upon cruising in our Marketing class I knew how exciting the cruise industry is. Heavy competition and large investments lead to a fast pace onboard the vessels – an exciting combination when heading into job-life.

Were there any particular classes at EHL that are helpful to you in your job with the cruise lines?

It’s difficult to point out one particular class that helps me do my job. It’s really the total package that counts, starting from the understanding of how it is to work in an industrial kitchen and using Excel properly. All the management courses are important such as Marketing, Rooms Division as well as Strategy, Finance and Tourism help me to understand the company’s decisions as well as to provide valuable input when my opinion is asked. Since a cruise ship is a floating resort in a changing environment, our education is extremely valuable for the company.

What are the different positions that you’ve had on cruise ships?

After graduating from EHL I worked as Personal Concierge on the Celebrity Constellation, a Millennium-Class ship with 2’000 guests. The main purpose of this position is upselling onboard revenue facilities and creating ‘unforgettable’ experiences for guests onboard.

Could you give some specific examples of your tasks as Personal Concierge onboard in order to create these experiences?

OMM Benedict Fornaro Celebrity Casino

At the beginning of every cruise I got in touch with all group leaders as well as guests that were celebrating a special occasion. I also reached out to guests known to spend large amounts with the company. I offered these guests my services regarding onboard experiences. I made arrangements in the spa, booked shore excursions or picked the right gift for their very special someone in the jewelry store. I once chose a beautiful TAG Heuer for a guest. His wife asked me to present the watch at the table when they were dinning for his birthday in one of our specialty restaurants. As I knew the gentlemen, I presented the watch with a little speech creating a link between TAG Heuer watches and the guest’s favorite opera ‘Nabbucco’. A personal touch to all my services was very important.

In this position I’ve learned the organizational structure of a cruise ship and the relationship between the cruise line and its concessionaires running the spa, the shops, the photo gallery and the art program. During these six months I tried to learn as much as possible about the cruise industry, Celebrity Cruises and the key players of onboard revenue.

And your next position onboard?

For my second cruise contract I came back to the Celebrity Constellation as Onboard Marketing Manager (OMM). As OMM I’m responsible for managing all revenue centers onboard as well as respecting the company’s brand standards when promoting and organizing sales events.

Are these events for selling future cruises or selling onboard activities?

These events are usually held by the onboard revenue departments. ‘Russian Bazaar’, ‘Photo Frenzy’ or the ‘Health and Wellness Experience’ are examples of successful activities. We’re also promoting future cruises with great benefits for our guests booking their next cruise onboard our ship.

Celebrity Culinary Delights Promotion Benedict Fornaro

I’m directly managing the shore excursions, the casino, the gift shops, the photo gallery, art program, the online center, the spa and the future cruise sales through their respective managers. However, the revenue generating F&B facilities such as the bar or specialty restaurants are managed by the F&B department (N.B. Regular dining is included in all major cruise line tickets). The marketing for all of these onboard activities is done by me in cooperation with the F&B department.

In the beginning of each cruise the department heads reach out to their potential customers with an ‘Open House’ during embarkation day that allows our guests to get to know all we offer onboard. Known casino players, guests who spent time in the spa on other cruises or guests that have shown an interest for art are contacted. We can adapt our offers to private art viewings, casino tournaments or special treatment that may especially please our guests.

Due to the broad offer of services onboard there are many different target profiles: the casino players, the spa lovers, the shore excursion enthusiasts, etc. That is why each department has to identify their target group. Sharing information is valuable. Honeymooners (information that is known in advance) for instance, are good potential guests for the spa as well as the specialty restaurants and the photo department. We then create cross-promotional offers that please our guests as well as the revenue centers. 

The onboard revenue targets for every cruise are broken down to an average spend per day per passenger. Hence, I know that every guest should spend a certain amount of money in the bar, the casino, the shops etc. every day. After a few days into the cruise I recognize the challenging areas and I adapt the marketing strategy in order to support weaker departments or to reduce the emphasis on the strong areas so that each of the revenues goals are met. External factors make the job onboard more challenging and can impact the performance of the onboard revenue departments. Some strategies may work during one cruise that will not work for the next cruise. This can be due to different demographics, itineraries or just the weather. This is when a lot of flexibility and rapid decisions are needed. These decisions I make along with the managers of the respective revenue generating departments.

What is an example of the impact on the onboard revenue generation by the type of cruise for which you have to plan as an OMM?

There is a statistically non-proven correlation between the price of the cruise ticket and the amount of money guests spend onboard. For instance, a Baltic Cruise with a very high ticket price usually also generates an excellent amount of onboard revenue. This may seem obvious but there are specific reasons for this. The itinerary leads to many exotic and fascinating cities that are best experienced for most guests when buying an excursion onboard. Different currencies in all the various ports increase the onboard gift shop revenue because guests prefer buying in US Dollars rather than Euros, Russian Rubles, Danish or Swedish Kroner, etc. For many guests, this cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Therefore, they want to enjoy it as much as possible. On sea days the spa is fully booked. The sommeliers are extremely busy serving rare wines that are ordered and the specialty restaurants are exceptionally frequented.

Dale Chihuly glass chandalier

In contrast, a seven-night Caribbean Cruise out of Fort Lauderdale, one of the biggest cruise ports in the US, the ticket price is significantly lower as the competition is much higher. Each Saturday there are tens of thousands of cruise-berths leaving the port for a seven-night Caribbean cruise. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Carnival Cruises have all their sub-brands present in this port. Most guests onboard have cruised with us before. Therefore, they’re less interested in the products we sell onboard. Shore excursions are less popular as each destination offers beautiful beaches and great shopping for which experienced guests don’t need a guide. For the casino and the bars, theses cruises may be more interesting as we count on a lot of US citizens that usually spend more time in the casino or in the Martini Bar.

However, it is not possible to apply a standardized procedure for any cruise. If we have very mixed segments onboard, the team has to adapt to each by translating the daily program into more languages, adding more varied activities that will please each of our guests or, if required, even changing the dining times.

Therefore, many factors influence a cruise ship’s onboard revenue performance as well as its guest satisfaction ratings. The guest mix depends on the itinerary as well as the ticket price and the season. More families sail during holidays.  More Hispanics sail in South America. More active couples sail in the Baltic. The itinerary is another important factor. Panama Canal Cruises or seven-night Western European Cruises are fun and create great memories for our guests with only just the ports we visit and not so much because of the onboard activities. Another and very important factor is the leadership onboard and the crew. The credo ‘a happy crew for happy guests’ has been proven for every cruise with great satisfaction ratings. It’s the management’s responsibility to assure happiness amongst the staff.

Does Celebrity’s marketing headquarters send you demand analyses and target customer profiles which you could use as an OMM?

The Head Office provides us with all kinds of information before a cruise. A guest mix report in regards to citizenship, language, age and the amount of cruises with us is a helpful tool when preparing a cruise. These reports are integrated with historical data that we gather onboard. Therefore, the reports we receive are only valuable if the reports we send to headquarters are correct as well.

Is your position primarily focused on the onboard revenue generation strategies or are there other aspects of your job?

The OMM position comes with challenges and responsibilities as well as additional work representing Celebrity Cruises as a Senior Officer. Engaging with guests is as much expected as sending the onboard revenue reports on time to the head office in Miami as well attending the Steering Committee Meeting on every cruise.

Where and how should a candidate begin the process of looking for an OMM position?

Cruise lines usually outsource their recruitment as applicants come from all over the world. We have over 60 nationalities on our ships. I have learned that management positions onboard are either filled with loyal employees knowing the product very well or with applicants that have a contact inside the company. A higher education in hospitality is very much appreciated.

There is no actual hiring season in the cruise industry for onboard positions. Contracts end every day and not all employees come back to the ship. People interested to work for a cruise line can gather most of the information online and also send companies online applications.

What kind of contracts and obligations as well as benefits would an OMM have working for a cruise company?

Cruise Lines are used to very high personnel fluctuation. Working contracts last from 6 to 12 months depending on the position and specific contract conditions. My contract lasts for six months whereas I’m four months on the ship and two months off. The salary can be influenced by tips, bonus and vacation payments. Each position has an exact salary structure. The wages are paid in cash in dollars on the ship.

Can you give some web links for those who may be looking into working as an OMM or other positions at sea?

Yes, I recommend Celebrity Careers at Sea, Royal Careers at Sea and Azama Careers at Sea. There are many other types of postions on board and that information is also found online.

Thank you Benedict!

As Benedict mentioned, the quality of service onboard depends on the quality and satisfaction of the shipboard personnel. Crew loyalty is necessary and this is a result of atmosphere, job security with insurance benefits, and social and educational opportunities as well as a good shore-based infrastructure for crew to feel like an important member of the cruise line.

Want to hear it from an expert? Read this fascinating testimonial of the 27-year career of Rai Caluori, Executive Vice President of Fleet Operations for Princess Cruises.


Celebrity Cruise photos courtesy of Benedict Fornaro, Celebrity Cruises ©2011

Article by Sonja Holverson.

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